Voter bias, football polls, and TCU

One of the topics undersold during the arguments of which four NCAA football teams deserved a spot in the college football playoff was the effect of voter bias on decision making.

Specifically, literature has found NCAA football poll voters to be biased in a few ways.

Bias #1- Associated Press (AP) poll voters are biased towards teams (i) in the voter’s home state, (ii) in the same conference as teams in the voter’s state, (iii) in BCS conferences, and (iv) teams playing in more televised games.

Bias #2- Coaching poll voters are biased in favor of both their recent opponents and their alma-maters.

Bias #3- AP voters are biased in favor of teams which were ranked higher earlier in the season.

It’s obviously too early to tell whether or not these biases will hold with the college football playoff selection committee over the long run. However, it’s particularly curious how the decision-making process manifested itself with respect to one team, at least in 2014.

TCU.

For starters, the Horned Frogs played only five games on national television, while the four playoff teams played the vast majority, if not all, of their games on ABC, ESPN, or FOX.

Even more startling, here’s a plot of the NCAA preseason and postseason AP ranks. For teams not ranked in the pre or postseason polls, I looked at the “others receiving votes” group of the poll, and also Massey rankings, to estimate team location.

Preseason and postseason AP poll ranks
Preseason and postseason AP poll ranks

AP voters had TCU lumped behind, among other teams, Marshall and Louisville in its 2014 preseason poll, and the Horned Frogs didn’t even make the Top-25 until the sixth week of the poll.

By season’s end, the Horned Frogs had jumped to No. 6, and were arguably the last team excluded by the playoff selection committee.

Why does this matter?

On December 7th, the committee ousted TCU in favor of the Ohio State for the final spot in the playoff. Interestingly, that’s the same Buckeye team that the voters had ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll. In fact, all four teams selected by the committee ranked among the preseason AP top-5. 

The decision to exclude TCU in favor of Ohio State or Florida State didn’t just happen on December 7th. With voters biased against teams starting behind in preseason polls and against ones with fewer games on national television, the decision to exclude TCU began far before that – in all likelihood, the decision making process started before the regular season even began.

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Postscript 1: The obvious solution to certain types of voter bias is to not take the first polls of the season until a few weeks after the season actually starts.

Postscript 2: It’s interesting how Mississippi State followed nearly an identical trajectory to TCU. In fact, TCU had 23 votes in the preseason poll, and MSU had 22.

Postscript 3: Given that I have coached or helped coach a high school football team in Massachusetts for more than a decade, I was interested in making the same graph with 2014 high school teams. To do so, I used ESPN Boston’s pre and postseason team rankings. I also used computer rankings from calpreps to estimate where teams not ranked at the end of the season stood, and in some cases, those teams did not even fit on my graph’s y-axis (Doherty, Auburn, etc).

2014 Massachusetts football rankings (via ESPN Boston)
2014 Massachusetts football rankings (via ESPN Boston)

I don’t really know what this graph means, other than the fact that high school kids should take preseason rankings with a grain of salt. The team ESPN ranked No. 7 in August, for example, was ranked No. 75 by calpreps in January.

My guess is that high school kids worry about these types of things much more than they should.

Polls are mostly a crapshoots – and, at least with college football polls, they are biased ones at that.

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